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Democrat November-December 2008 (Number 111)

Say 'no!' to EU rail privatisation

RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, explains why RMT marched with
tens of thousands of rail workers in Paris agains EU rail directives

Bob Crow - General Secretary of RMT

Around 25,000 trade unionists from Europe and beyond converged on Paris on November 13 for an international protest against EU rules which demand the break up and privatisation of rail networks.

The demonstration, called by the French rail union CGT and supported by the European Transport Workers Federation, demanded an end to EU-led rail 'liberalisation' and the damaging split between train operations and rail infrastructure.

It was the first major international protest against EU diktats which are forcing member states to hand over national rail networks to the private sector, fundamentally attacking the concept of a social railway.

British Rail was privatised over 10 years ago by a Tory government carrying out a European Commission rail directive 91/440/EEC, which demands the split of 'wheel and steel' in order to create market conditions in what is effectively a natural monopoly.

This gave us the disaster known as Railtrack, widely ridiculed as a property developer with some bits of rail on it, and separate train operating companies to run the franchises.

While a lot has been said about the huge sums of public money being pumped into the banks in the current capitalist crisis, less has been said about the criminal corporate welfare programme in the rail industry perpetrated since 1996.

Rail privateers and their shareholders have leeched tens of billions of pounds out of the industry while taxpayers now pay over three times in rail subsidies than they did under public ownership.

Despite this insane state of affairs the neo-liberal mandarins of Brussels are rolling out their dangerous and failed privatisation model across the continent.

Since 1991 the Commission has launched three rail packages enforcing 'competition' in rail freight in 2005 and full 'liberalisation' in passenger services by 2010.

This rail privatisation drive, which no-one asked for except big business and their EU lobby groups, is throwing rail networks into the same familiar chaos across Europe.

The EU project is designed to take rail networks out of the hands of the state and create a single European rail network run by essentially private sector monopolies.

Yet Europe's biggest state-owned rail companies in France and Germany have different ideas and both are using the great EU rail sale to buy up competitors across Europe.

For instance, Germany's Deutsche Bahn last year bought the UK's biggest rail freight operator EWS and the French rail giant SNCF has just taken a 20 per cent stake in NTV, Europe's first private high-speed train operator, which plans to operate between Rome and Milan.

Far from moving towards privatisation, as dictated by Brussels, Berlin has just cancelled the sale of a quarter stake in their state-owned railway due to continuing financial market turmoil.

For its part the Commission has huffed and puffed, launched investigations and sent letters of complaint to member states for not doing as they are told regarding rail 'liberalisation', with mixed success.

The European Commission has now given governments until the end of 2009 to end "hidden" state aid to railway companies or face a crackdown.

Transport commissioner Jacques Barrot has warned "these activities must cease by 1 January 2010".

This puts the Commission on a collision course with member states and their elected governments. Hence the Commission's hurry to get its discredited Lisbon Treaty in place before then as transport is one of the areas where national vetoes would be abolished and replaced by qualified majority voting.

The prospect of a 'liberalised' rail industry in Europe dominated by a German freight monopoly and a French high-speed passenger monopoly would also clearly not operate in the interests of rail users or those who work in the industry.

Speaking to the Financial Times earlier this month, SNCF chief Guillaume Pépy made clear the extent to which SNCF plans to mimic Deutsche Bahn. He predicted a small number of Europe-wide operators would emerge from the current process of liberalisation. "This industry is going to be consolidated, exactly as the airline industry has been consolidated during the past 20 years," he said.

He openly warned that the company would have to become more competitive and cut costs - that means job losses and downward pressure on wages and pensions.

"The question we're going to face is, 'Are you able to provide more public service with less money?'" Mr Pépy said.

For the answer he needs to look across the Channel to Britain with the highest fares in Europe, massive fragmentation and triple the subsidy of BR.

For transport workers and those who rely on the services they provide, the creation of private rail monopolies in Europe outside of any democratic control should not be an acceptable future for rail. The UK experience has showed that the private sector is more willing to take money out of the network than invest for the public good. The current capitalist crisis will only reinforce this fact with a vengeance.

My union RMT, other rail unions across Europe and the ETF are calling for an end to rail privatisation and a new future for nationalised, democratically-controlled, publicly-owned railways and more public investment in railways for economic growth and for the environment.

Also see - Rail workers march against EU diktats